Gov. John Kasich on Friday found Pennsylvania conservatives cool to his message of bipartisanship and moderation. And that could be trouble in a state he badly needs to win.
The Ohio governor is a distant third in the national Republican presidential delegate race. He’s won only Ohio, and Pennsylvania’s April 26 primary looms as his next, probably last, best chance for a victory.
Kasich stresses his local roots over and over.
He’s a mailman’s son from McKees Rocks, across the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. He cited Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente as his childhood hero. And his native state shares a common border, and common demographics, with Ohio.
He’s expected to get more sympathetic audiences in the populous Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs, but among conservative activists from all over the state Friday, there was little enthusiasm for Kasich during his 35-minute appearance.
When he took questions, they weren’t always friendly. One audience member questioned him over his loyalty to Common Core, education standards created by the states but considered intrusive big government by most conservatives.
“Our state board of education approved higher standards for our children. You know why. We didn’t have high standards,” Kasich explained, but local boards have control over school policies.
Carol Allen, an East Penn school board member, was skeptical. “They’re accepting” Common Core standards, she said.
Trump has 736 delegates. Cruz has 463. Kasich has 163. 1,237 are needed to nominate.
Kasich began his day with a town hall meeting in nearby Hershey, where he found a warmer audience. But he also had to address controversy.
One of his signature lines is that he won’t take the low road to the nomination. But a political action committee that backs Kasich, New Day for America, has been charging Cruz is “lying.”
Kasich told reporters he was not happy with the ad. “I’ve talked to all the folks in my regular campaign; I told them I am very unhappy with the use of that word,” Kasich said.
He cannot talk directly to New Day, though he can try to influence them by speaking out.
It seemed Friday that the campaign just couldn’t get much traction. At the gathering of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, which includes some of the state’s most ardent conservative activists, Kasich spoke from below the stage, so he was in the dark throughout his speech.
He offered a lengthy description of his Washington experience as House Budget Committee chairman, drawing little applause.
Kasich tried to define himself as someone with the experience and personality to get things done. He didn’t criticize rivals Donald Trump or Cruz by name – a smart move with an audience where both have strong support – but he came close.
People can talk about what the formula is. I’ve been in the laboratory actually executing the formula
Kasich to the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference Friday
Trying to get rid of all the nation’s illegal immigrants is unrealistic, he said. Trump has said he will deport the undocumented.
“We now have rules and we have to pay attention to the rules and the law. But we’re not going to drive around in the neighborhoods picking up 11 and a half million,” Kasich maintained.
“Come on, let’s be real,” Kasich said. “We can make all these statements (but) do we just want to play politics or do we want to fix the country?”
He didn’t seem to win over many of the activists.
“He’s a little too wishy washy for me on foreign policy,” said Rich McFarland, a Telford businessman.
Larry Cicero, a Lititz nurse anesthesiologist, did appreciate Kasich’s defense record as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. But he’s leaning toward Cruz because of his strong Christian faith.
At the gathering of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, Kasich spoke from below the stage, so he was in the dark throughout his speech.
Cruz, who also appeared at the Friday conference, found a lot of sympathetic supporters. In contrast to the response to Kasich, the crowd cheered at the end of nearly every Cruz statement.
“He’s the only candidate who understands the Constitution, particularly freedom of religion,” said John Emmons, a New London manufacturing director. He’s not convinced Kasich is as devoted to such principles.
Kasich is close in Pennsylvania. A March 14 to 20 Franklin & Marshall poll found Trump with 33 percent, Kasich with 30 percent and Cruz at 20 percent.
His biggest problem: He needs to convince people he’s even in the game, and that he can somehow stop Trump or Cruz.
As Charles Beatty, a Landenberg retiree put it, “I don’t think he’s going to be there at the end.”